Isabel Estate Chardonnay
For reasons that I struggle to understand, the Marlborough wine region has become synonymous with sauvignon blanc.
The region dominates in sales of the varietal not just in New Zealand but in Australasia for that matter. Since about 2009, the Kiwis’ sauvignon blanc has been the biggest selling wine in Australia; at one point accounting for over 40% of all wine sales made in the country. But if you ask me, with the commercial success of their product, the greedy corporates have trashed the reputation of the style by mass-producing cheap but high volume wines that are more reminiscent of a tropical fruit cordial than a product of viticulture.
In the early 1990’s, I enjoyed many of the sauvignon blancs from Marlborough – wines which had golden gooseberry, lime and passionfruit flavours nicely balanced by cheek sucking acids and a crispness on the finish. But it wasn’t cheap. And as the popularity of the style grew, the corporates saw an opportunity for profits and began to make large volumes of a wine which resembled the early product, but over time morphed into a cheap wine which tasted like tropical fruit cordial mixed with citric acid, and beefed up with sugar syrup to make it palatable to the masses.
These days, most of the region’s sauvignon blanc is a wishy-washy, commercially crafted, fermented grape juice (I struggle to call those by Giesen and their ilk, “wine”) which sells well in the majors driven by promotions and specials.
The Marlborough region is a beautiful province at the north-eastern tip of the Shaky Isles’ southern island. The picturesque Kaikora Ranges make a perfect backdrop for the vineyards situated on the alluvial plains along the Wairua River. The region kicked off its wine industry with the first plantings of vineyards around Blenheim in 1973, and by 1996 had about 6,610 hectares under vine, and by 2008 this had expanded to some 30,000 or so hectares. Sadly, these days it’s mostly sauvignon blanc rather than the chardonnay that were the early staple of the region.
If it were up to me, I’d start ripping up the sauvignon blanc and planting chardonnay instead. It’s a grape which does very well in the climate and with a long, cool growing season, gives the varietal time to put its best foot forward. One of the better ones available locally is the Isabel Estate Marlborough Chardonnay 2018. The Isabel vineyards are in the Wairua Valley and were first planted in 1980, making them some of the oldest in the region.
Enjoying long sunny days and mild autumn conditions enables the local fruit to develop an intensity of flavour, yet retain all the natural acidity that makes the wines so attractive. Over the years, winemaker Jeremy McKenzie has been in the headlines for all the right reasons and won Champion Wine of Show at the 2017 Air New Zealand Wine Awards with his Isabel chardy. Currently, it’s the 2018 edition on the shelves and it’s drinking well.
Swirl the glass and you have to admire the winemaker’s handiwork as the peach and nectarine characters jump out with the first whiff. Take a sip and the fruit is joined by a hint of minerality and some toasty oak before embarking on a rather linear conclusion. It’s a complex wine which is presently showing a palate-pleasing richness but which in time should reward the patient cellar-holder. At $25 – $39 a bottle, it’s a much better option than a Marlborough sauvignon blanc. Could this be the style of wine to end the savalanche?